Thursday, October 13, 2005

Third Culture Kids

This week I finally got an intern at work, I have been waiting anxiously for some help on our increasing anglophone marketing activities. Human Resources phoned me to announce his arrival:

« Pierre-Henri will start on Monday ».

"Pierre Henri" is a distinctly French name, and I had specifically asked for a native English-speaker! It turns out Pierre-Henri had dual citizenship and spoke and wrote impeccable English, even with a thick French accent. His linguistic skills turned out to be as varied as his cultural richness: he is a native of Zaire, who grew up in Japan, Venezuela and recently settled in Paris, where most of his family resides. He speaks Spanish, French, English, Japanese and two local Zaire dialects.

I was about to meet a Third Culture Kid !

Third Culture Kids (or TCKs) are children who grow up or spend a significant part of their childhood living abroad. This definition was coined by the Ruth Hill Useem, professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, who conducted research in the early 90’s on this growing portion of the population.
"Third Culture" refers to the unique culture developed by these individuals who grow up abroad, influenced by their parent’s culture (the "first" culture) and the culture of their host country (the "second" one).
A TCK is usually someone who develops an international outlook. In the article "Strangers in their own land," David Holmestrom writes that in 1998 the US State Department estimated 3.2 million Americans living abroad.
"Kids of these diplomatic, military and corporate parents grow with attitudes and values molded by two or more cultures. In the best of all possible outcomes, TCKs grow up to be the prototype multilingual citizen and ideal worker of the future, sought after professionally as markets and jobs expand globally, " writes Holmestrom.
Professor Ruth Hill Useem came up with some interesting facts about TCKs :

  • They are more likely to earn a degree than their peers back home.
  • They are often successfully employed in the top ranks of their profession.
  • They are more likely to work and live abroad.
  • They experience problems when repatriating: their integration is complicated by their world views and by a lack of vital cultural points of reference, such as pop culture icons.
  • They are more likely to hit it off with other TCKs, even when they have experienced different countries and cultures.

I do not qualify as a TCK, but I can relate to some of these issues: I grew up in northern Italy, and I moved to the US to pursue my university studies when I was 19. After a few years, I have distinct memories of feeling equally at ease and equally uncomfortable in both my native Italy and in my new host country.
My freshman year in college was a true culture shock. For instance, I had nothing in common with the average American teenager who was trying all sorts of tricks to enter bars illegally and get wasted ! In Italy there’s no drinking age limit, therefore the youth is not focused on breaking down that barrier. And back home, my high school friends were intimidated by my new experiences, so it was best to avoid any recounting of my life in America.

Eventually, with time, I developed un understanding and appreciation for the Amercan way of life and upon graduating from college I had to make a decision: was I going to pursue a career in the US, where I was finally starting to feel at ease, or was I going back home? Where was I to find my home?

It was Petra, my Art History professor, a Dutch historian married to a naturalized Chinese -American, who mentored me in those delicate days. I will never forget when she told me:

"The key is to find something you are passionate about and find a place where you can practice it. It does not matter where: you will always feel at home when you meet people like you and I, those who have had the chance to confront themselves with other cultures and values. You will see, there will be an immediate link."

Over the years, her recipe proved true more than once. I guess that’s also why I am having a great time working with Pierre-Henri!


Alice in Austria said...

How funny that you post this now as I am working on a post on exactly the same topic! I even found the SAME excerpts online on third culture kids, lol. I am a third culture kid too, Austrian-Korean, constantly moving back & forth between these two countries, also having lived for a while in the U.S. and Ecuador. I attended International Schools throughout my life, which also have their own international culture, yet an american school system! It was there that we were told we were third culture kids...

For the first time in my life I've finally settled down at "home" but I've encountered some of the problems in the process which are typical for TCKs...Interesting topic, indeed! :)

Clo said...

How fascinating! You are living proof! I look forward to reading your post, coming form a real TCK...I loved the process of being conforted with another way of living, event though Italy and the US are two Western cultures with more similarities than divergences. However, I have always felt reassured by my clear roots and sense of belonging to a specific, definite culture. I wonder how our children will develop in this sense,is it the environment that matters? I haven't approached yet the subject of emotional affiliation, but I would be curious to hear your story! By the way, I finally managed to link to your blog!

Alice in Austria said...

Ok, my story's up! Thanks for the nudge, I've been procrastinating about it for quite some time already ;)